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[KATHMANDU] Described as a 'white spot' for research in the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the Hindu-Kush-Himalayan (HKH) region continues to suffer from a lack of adequate data — according to a recent publication 'The Waters of the Third Pole: Sources of Threat, Sources of Survival'.

Andreas Schild, director-general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), spoke to SciDev.Net about the current state of scientific research in the region and the potential for collaboration. While countries in the region have taken determined steps to improve the quality and quantity of research in the region, more needs to be done in terms of cross-border sharing of information (see Collaborate on water, Himalayan scientists urged).

How feasible is cross-regional collaboration? Are scientists likely to collaborate in this region and what needs to be done for them to do so in the near future?

If we talk about scientific collaboration at the level of the stakeholders, we find very high interest among researchers in all concerned countries for cross-border collaboration and exchange of information.

I think there is a difference between the scientific community and government administration. This is seen especially in China. Speaking about the ICIMOD supported Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation Initiative (a collaborative effort involving India, China and Nepal), we face absolutely no restrictions and we have seen keen interest.

This project seeks to facilitate transboundary and ecosystem management approaches for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development through regional cooperation in the greater Mount Kailash area. But when it comes to cooperation on concrete issues at the level of government institutions it is more complicated.

Are national security issues often a justification for not sharing information?

Yes, this is an important issue. Let us take the example of water, one of the most important resources. Traditionally, there has been no free exchange of information on water discharge, and this is practically still the case today. The difficulty lies less in sharing information on monsoon discharge, but more in critical information on winter discharge. Traditionally, such data have not been revealed.

On the other hand, ICIMOD is participating in regional satellite-based weather forecasting and with satellite imagery we can get approximate data and develop models.

Currently, together with the World Meteorological Organisation, we are implementing a regional project called the hydrological cycle observing system, where we want to promote a common forecasting of floods in the region. All the regional partners participated in the pilot phase, but the government of India only participated as an 'observer'. We hope this situation will change.

Is there a knowledge gap at the regional level?

There has been no systematic research on glaciers. Only China has been conducting mass balance studies on several central Asian glaciers since the last 50 years. We don't have such information on the larger Himalayan glaciers. In India, the Geological Survey of India started mass balance studies in 2003. Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan have not conducted such long-term studies.

ICIMOD, together with UNESCO, is trying to organise training courses for researchers in the region.  Another example of the lack of data is in the number of hydrometric stations in the region. Most of them in this part of the world are between 50 metres and 300 metres above sea level. The higher you go, the fewer you find.

Much has changed since the publication of the last IPCC report, however. For example, China, India and Pakistan, over the last five years, have made an effort to respond to the challenges of a lack of data. The government of China has invested a lot of money in the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and they have now launched a new programme called the Third Pole Environment to attract international researchers and create a research framework.

The government of India's national plan for adaptation to climate change has a chapter on the Himalayas, which says that more research should be conducted on glaciers and the cryosphere (the region of the earth's surface composed of frozen water). India will set up a specialised institute for Himalayan glaciology in Dehradun.

Nepal's government has not been able to give priority to strengthening its research institutions, because they have so many other considerations. Nepal has had 10 years of civil war and is currently in an exercise of nation-building, which explains why climate change and the environment have not been a priority issue (see Monitoring climate change at the top of the world).

The report also calls for non-intrusive Western help on local terms. Can scientists and policymakers in the region set the agenda or does this have to come from the West?

On the topic of biodiversity, we organised a conference in 2008 in Kathmandu where we invited international and regional organisations engaged in research in biodiversity. The primary purpose was to inform all stakeholders in the region on the type of research being conducted here. A lot of research conducted on this region by European universities and other institutions is not shared. Therefore, ICIMOD encourages more exchange and making information available regionally.

A key problem in the HKH region is (research) continuity. Too much of research here is done under the framework of development cooperation, which provides funds for three years, and once that programme is over there is no more continuity. We think that what needs be done is to strengthen the capacity of the local institutions. Otherwise, you just get this project-level approach. 

When we talk about knowledge development, we should not limit ourselves to development cooperation, but we should also think in terms of scientific cooperation. Our partners abroad should not just be development agencies, but also other knowledge development institutions.

There are a number of international research programmes that enable universities in industrialised countries to do research in the region of the HKH. Their approach is often very Europe-centric. The partners in the South play the role of Sherpas ( a Himalayan ethnic community who work mainly as guides on mountaineering expeditions) — they just collect the data so that another university in the north can then produce the knowledge. ICIMOD would like to promote more regional cooperation among universities, and also create twinning arrangements with universities from outside the region. We would like that the universities in the region are sitting in the driver's seat.

How does one change this relation of dependency?

This is mainly a question of resources and opportunities. Research on mountain issues and on climate change has not been a priority in this part of the world. Western and Japanese universities have more resources and a long tradition of Himalayan research. Especially when it comes to natural science, Europe and the US already have 100 years of experience. This also constitutes also a learning opportunity for the Himalayan universities.

The situation will only change if the institutional and financial resources are available. But it also requires that the youth in the Himalayan countries take a much stronger interest in understanding their own environment.

Are there already cross-country platforms for sharing data and expertise in the region?

Climate change has created a number of initiatives. The Asian Development Bank is promoting a network of knowledge hubs throughout Asia. UNEP facilitates a centre of excellence for adaptation to climate change. USAID is planning to build up regional centres of reference for climate change. The Energy Research Institute (TERI) in India is a centre of global reputation.

As far as I see, ICIMOD is the only intergovernmental organisation with a mountain focus and promoting trans-boundary exchange of knowledge. But there exist strong programmes like the South Asia Water Initiative promoted by World Bank and financed by a number of bilateral donors.

ICIMOD is involved in a series of initiatives aiming at regional platforms, common learning and cooperation. For instance, the Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation Programme. Another example of cross-border collaboration is in the Koshi basin initiative, under which the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu University, and the Water and Energy Commission Secretariat in Nepal are partnering in the first exploration phase. The idea is that within a year’s time we will have developed a long-term programme for research on the Koshi basin.

We in ICIMOD think that the fact that we can bring researchers and planners together to sit around a table to discuss these issues and experiences with each other is a very important step.